Users tout BI rollout benefits

The day after it was learned a cow infected with mad cow disease had been discovered in Alberta, officials at Cara Business Operations Ltd. watched as sales at its Harvey’s fast food restaurants dropped by eight per cent.

“Two days later it was zero per cent impact, and four days later sales went up,” said Edward Kress, director of new business development at ThinkNet Inc. “Using business intelligence, they were able to watch the reaction and not over-respond to the hype.”

Kress pointed to this as one example of the benefits of business intelligence (BI) software earlier this month while speaking at the BI/ERP Software Solutions show in Toronto. The daylong event featured several customers who explained how they were able to get value from their software investments.

Kress explained how ThinkNet, using SQL Server and Microsoft Analysis products, as well as ThinkNet’s proprietary dashboard interface, helped Harvey’s restaurants better tap into sales data across its 337 restaurants. Previously, each store manager faxed, phoned or e-mailed in Excel spreadsheet data. Managers then pieced together the total data during a weekly meeting. “They only had top-line sales numbers by location and by day, not by individual transaction,” Kress said.

Today, BI links are tied into point-of-sale (POS) activity at every store register, meaning that Harvey’s managers can now deduce, for example, how many burgers of a particular kind are being sold at a particular location – in real time.

Kress recommended that those new to technology start their projects in small, incremental bites, and to prepare for the unpredictable effects that go hand-in-hand with new data.

All (of Harvey’s) procedures up to then now had to change, because they had information available that they never had before,” he said, adding that such change is often difficult.

Black Photo Corp., which oversees a nation-wide chain of camera retail stores, recently partnered with Montreal-based Intellera to install a Cognos Inc.-based BI package. Today, Roy Short, director of IS and technology at the company, said he’s able to extract data from his AS/400 system on a daily basis.

“We realized a return of investment of 2,000 per cent within six months,” Short said, mainly around the shortened time it took to provide sales information to its partner vendors and suppliers. “The challenge was no one believed (the numbers).”

He warned attendees that the process of “cleaning up” data – eliminating duplication, coding everything in a standard fashion – in preparation for rolling out BI is one of the most challenging aspects. “I can’t stress it enough,” he added.

During the show’s opening keynote, Michael Burns, president of consulting firm 180 Systems in Toronto, said the business case for BI software is “relatively easy.”

He pointed to the hours it can save versus pulling and compiling data from Excel spreadsheets – the most common manual form of business intelligence gathering – as well as the ability to get that information quickly, which can both improve customer service and help companies anticipate threats.

“The smart companies (also) take the opportunity to improve business processes,” Burns added.

However, he also warned that the “first mile” of BI, the actual extracting of data, can in itself represent 50 per cent of the cost of any solution.